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Friday, August 29, 2008

The West Wing: 4-for-4?

Earlier in the week, I wrote about the idea that The West Wing's final season seemed to have predicted three of the four players in the 2008 presidential election: the young, charismatic, relatively inexperienced minority Democrat; his older, establishment, foreign-policy-steeped running mate; and his moderate, anti-GOP-establishment, foreign-policy-focused Republican opponent.

So how does Sarah Palin (anti-choice and very socially conservative, beloved by the Religious Right and chosen to appeal to the unenthusiastic conservative base, governor of a small state) compare with The West Wing's Ray Sullivan (socially conservative and anti-choice, intended to appeal to a suspicious and unenthusiastic conservative base, governor of a small state (West Virginia))? The obvious difference, besides gender, is in experience (the Sullivan character was a former U.S. Attorney and a two-term governor) and [ed.: apparent, at this point] intellectual heft. Frankly, had the show's writers written Sarah Palin as the GOP nominee for vice president they would have been ripped apart by commentators as liberals stacking the narrative deck and making Republicans look unrealistically unserious.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 29, 2008 at 10:00 PM | Permalink


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Hey Howard, here is Biden's intellectual heft for you, from the NY Times in a 9/1/2008 article by Jeff Zeleny entitled, On the Trail, Adjusting to Life as a Couple.

[T]he weekend offered Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden one of their first opportunities to spend an extended period of time settling into their new marriage. At every stop, the two men greeted their audiences together. As Mr. Biden offered the opening remarks, Mr. Obama stood at his side and looked out into the audience, applauding and smiling.

If the introductory speech lingered, as it began to do on Saturday evening on a high school football field in Dublin, Ohio, Mr. Obama began shifting back and forth. Soon, his feet were moving in a small circle on the stage, while a cheering audience of nearly 20,000 people waited.

When a stopwatch of Mr. Biden’s speech hit 8 minutes, 21 seconds, he turned to Mr. Obama and lowered his head. His words, intended to be a whisper, were caught by the open microphone.

“I think I should let you go and not do the rest of this, don’t you think?” asked Mr. Biden, who had several pages of a printed speech remaining to be read.

Mr. Obama nodded...

That's Joe Biden for you.

Posted by: anon | Sep 1, 2008 7:27:45 PM

Biden has NOT shown intellectual heft during U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings (look at Alito and Roberts, the two most recent). He has been embarassing in both style and substance.

Posted by: anon | Sep 1, 2008 3:14:58 PM

I'm not sure that our difference is based on where our default is. I think that I perhaps understand the term you used, 'intellectual heft', differently from how you intended it.
If you intended it to be linked with experience, then certainly it is fair to say that Palin so far seems to be lacking in it. I must say, however, it seems possibly disingenous on your part to now say that 'experience is part of the concept', since in your initial post you purposely separated the concepts of intellectual heft and experience. I'm at a loss to see why you would do that if you intended experience to be part of the concept of intellectual heft.
For me, I would view the idea of intellectual heft as something completely divorced from experience--I guess I would describe it as a detached ability to evaluate and analyze issues. In that sense, one's previous experience with those issues is less important that the ability to weigh possible outcomes based on the information available, compare those outcomes, and come to a sensible solution. In that sense, there is no evidence either way that Palin either has or does not have this type of intellectual heft, particularly when it comes to national issues (and I agree with you that Biden has shown himself to have it through his time in the Senate).

Posted by: D | Sep 1, 2008 12:01:44 PM

This has now gotten way beyond the point of the original post, the somewhat impressive similarities between the West Wing election and the real one. And I do stand by my statement in the post that if the writers had written Palin into the VP role on the show, they would have been lambasted for being dramatically biased against Republicans.

Biden is widely regarded as one of the most engaged, studied, curious, informed, and knowledgeable members of the Senate on foreign policy. Yes, he has intellectual heft, developed over time *and* through engagement with the issues. That heft was not apparent based solely on his mediocre academic performance (a point Dan covered last week and with which I generally agree), but we now have a lot more to go on with him. I think, by the way, that the concept we are dealing with is something that develops over time; experience is part of the concept, although it is more than that. Was Biden intellectually ready (hefty enough, if you will) to be Vice President 18 months into his first term in a major elective office? No.

I also think this is something of a difference of where our default is. In the absence of information indicating real interest, knowledge, engagement, and readiness, do we start with the conclusion that she lacks heft and wait for more information? Or do we start from the conclusion that she may have heft and wait and see. I admittedly took the former approach, in part because I believe if there were indications of that engagement and power, it would have been trotted out for us.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 31, 2008 2:14:19 PM

Does Biden have "intellectual heft"? If so, please explain. Is this based on US Supreme Court confirmation hearings in which Biden asked questions?

Posted by: anon | Aug 31, 2008 12:55:04 PM

I appreciate the response, and I understand your point that there is now an expectation of a different kind of 'intellectual heft' for the job for which she has been nominated.
However, my issue with your statement remains--that there is no evidence (either favoring her or against her) of her intellectual heft for a major national office. It is certainly a valid criticism to point out her lack of experience with national politics and major national issues, but that would be a critique based on inexperience, not lack of intellectual prowess, which is one of the differences you noted between her and the fictional Ray Sullivan. As it stands now, it seems there is no way to make a perceived judgment about her intellect one way or the other.

Posted by: D | Aug 31, 2008 1:06:45 AM

Howard, I'm still somewhat surprised that you were so quickly able to come to the conclusion that you did, tentative as it may be.

"Intellectual heft" isn't a simple concept, so it's helpful that you've posted some follow up comments. You say that she hasn't elaborated meaningful views on most national and foreign policy issues and that there's no indication she's given them any thought. But of course there's no evidence that she hasn't given them any thought, and as for the "elaboration" of views on the important issues of the day: doesn't the typical candidate--Obama, to take one example--end up elaborating views that look strikingly like the views of his or her party? Do you wonder if she's up to reading the briefing books prepared by staff, as the other candidates do? Moving to academic performance: is there anything you've seen that would suggest she's not capable of graduating at the bottom of a not-very-good law school, as Biden did? (Did you use academics as a rough proxy with Biden, and if you did, what was your conclusion?)

I don't know why your reflexive response was what it was. I raised gender as only one of the possibilities. As it happens, I think most of the negative reaction I've seen is as much a reaction to her class as her gender (though, again, I'm not saying yours is).

Posted by: Thomas | Aug 30, 2008 11:22:27 PM


My point (which I did not state fully) was more specifically about the intellectual heft for the job for which she has been nominated. True, in her prior positions, there was no expectation. But as a candidate for this office, that becomes an expectation.

Drew: The reason I don't know anything about her positions is that, except for the ones directly touching on Alaska (drilling and some environmental issues being the prime example), she doesn't have any publicly stated positions and there is no indication she even has thought about them.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 30, 2008 9:46:49 PM

@ Howard's response:

But still how can you say other women "appear" to have more intellectual heft than Palin? You admit you know nothing of her academic performance or about her views on national issues. And that fact that no one has heaped praise on her intellect does not seem to prove anything. I think you made a quick judgment about her based on no information and should probably admit your mistake.

Posted by: Drew | Aug 30, 2008 7:52:26 PM

I think it is highly unfair to say that she 'lacks intellectual heft' because she has not elaborated meaningful views on national issues. As you seem to almost admit, there is really no reason for her to have done so--it is a perfectly valid point to argue that her lack of any national experience hurts her, but there should be no expectation that someone who has been exclusively involved in local/state politics should have clearly articulated, public views on national policy.
If she had such views, and they were patently absurd, then it would be fair to criticize her intellectual heft. However, since she has now been involved in national politics for about 3 days, I think it is a bit early to comment on her intellectual prowess.

Posted by: D | Aug 30, 2008 4:46:25 PM

For what it's worth, Palin seems to know an awful lot about energy policy. You can read my exchange with Gelbach to know why I think "anti-choice" is lame. It doesn't capture anything distinctive about pro-lifers--anyone who wants to ban anything or constitutionalize anything (see, e.g., supporters of Roe) is opposed to someone making some choice--and it's offensive to them. Labels for a position should either (a) accurately characterize what is disinctive about that position or (b) be non-offensive to those who hold it. Maybe it's not intellectually dishonest, but still highly inappropriate for serious, polite intellectual discussion.

Posted by: Chris | Aug 30, 2008 4:38:31 PM

I have read enough to know that she has not elaborated meaningful views on most national (and almost all foreign policy) issues and there is no indication that she has (or, in fairness, ever has had to) given them meaningful thought. Of all the many accolades thrown her way in the past day, none (that I have seen) has focused on her intelligence. I have heard nothing about her academic performance (and like Dan, I believe that academic performance is something of a weak, rough proxy for smarts), although it has nothing to do with whether or not she went to an Ivy (many of the smartest people I know didn't).

Thomas: It perhaps is predictive of how the rest of this election is going to go that your early move in response to my criticism of Palin's apparent competence for the job is "is it because she's a woman". So, no: I know a lot of very intellectually hefty women--I married one, I work with a bunch, and I am friends with many. And I can think of many, many conservative women in public life who show far more intellectual heft. than Palin appears to. But if gender is going to be raised as to even the most neutral criticism, this may turn out to be a very politically shrewd move.

Finally, Chris, although this is off the topic: There is nothing intellectually dishonest in the term anti-choice. I used it because, I believe, it better captures what I believe are the competing positions in the debate over reproductive freedom. You may disagree with that framing (just as I would disagree with the phrase "pro-abortion") and we can have that discussion. But I am not sure how this breaches the Prawfs motto(other than the "kind of boring way" portion).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 30, 2008 2:27:26 PM

The added "apparent" helps, but not enough for my taste. What makes her seem (even defeasibly) un-hefty?

Oh, and "anti-choice." Ugh. I suppose the banner does say "almost."

Posted by: Chris | Aug 30, 2008 7:06:00 AM

You sure can tell a lot about a woman's intellectual heft based on very little information. Is it obvious that she lacks intellectual heft because her husbands works with his hands? Because she's conservative? Because she didn't go to an Ivy? What makes it so obvious? Because she's a woman?

Posted by: Thomas | Aug 30, 2008 12:38:06 AM

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